Inside No 10: how Theresa May's machine has changed since the 2017 general election

Written by Sebastian Whale and Kevin Schofield on 17 July 2018 in Feature
Feature

One year after the snap election which led to major changes Theresa May’s team, Kevin Schofield and Sebastian Whale talk to No 10 insiders, ministers and backbench Tories to find out more about the political team behind Britain’s most famous black door

Every morning, Theresa May’s husband Philip carries her ministerial red box as they walk down from their flat at No 11 Downing Street. At the bottom, he hands it back and departs for work. The PM makes for her study.

By now, key members of her top team have already had their first meeting. It takes place at 8am in the Cabinet Room and is a chance for the PM’s political and press team to chart what’s coming up. Those attending include May’s official spokesman James Slack, his deputy Alison Donnelly, chief of staff Gavin Barwell, director of communications Robbie Gibb, press secretary Paul Harrison and director of legislative affairs Nikki da Costa. There is usually someone from Conservative Campaign Headquarters and the No 10 press office there as well. “We go through what’s bothering us and what we’re going to say about it,” says a source.

After the Mays have descended from their private quarters, the PM chairs the all-important 8.30am meeting. As well as Slack and Barwell, the cast list includes deputy chief of staff Joanna ‘Jojo’ Penn, de facto deputy PM David Lidington and chief whip Julian Smith, as well as the cabinet secretary. Philip Hammond is sometimes there as well, but not always. It lasts between 30 and 45 minutes, after which the prime minister usually heads for the first of a steady stream of meetings.

“We go through the media and the PM’s day, and hammer out any issues or problems, and what’s coming up in parliament,” a source says.

“It is incredibly similar to what it was like before the election.”

While some things remain the same behind Britain’s most famous black door, others had to change after the general election called to bolster May’s Brexit negotiating position saw her return without a majority. Under pressure from her restive ministers, she was also forced to cut loose her fiercely loyal confidants Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill.

The joint chiefs of staff, who had been with her since her time in the Home Office, alienated colleagues in their relentless defence of the PM and promotion of her agenda. Their demise was a pre-requisite for the Conservative party to continue backing May as their leader.

“There are much better mechanisms for listening, but at the end of the day the prime minister is enormously stubborn”

Several key decisions were taken in the restructuring of Downing Street after the election. The pivotal one was to appoint Barwell, who lost his Croydon Central seat to Labour, as chief of staff. This was a “stroke of genius”, one Conservative MP says.

The popular ex-minister is well versed with the ins and outs of the Tory benches and has taken it upon himself to keep abreast of them. He holds bi-weekly roundtable lunches or meetings with MPs to touch base with colleagues about their concerns.

Lidington says Barwell was a “very important appointment”. “I think you’d say with Gavin he was both respected and liked by most Conservative parliamentarians. That’s a good twin asset to have. I think he’s been a great ally to the PM,” he says.

Access to Downing Street too has improved markedly since the election, backbenchers say. “If you say you want a meeting with the prime minister, then as far as humanly possible, given her diary, it is arranged,” says Nicky Morgan, whose tempestuous relationship with the former No 10 team culminated in a text message from Hill to another Tory MP warning: “Don’t bring that woman to No 10 again”.

“So, it is immeasurably better,” Morgan continues. “The difficulty is that people are still very scarred by the first nine months.”

For all the concerted effort to improve transparency, some MPs believe the gestures are tokenistic. “You can have all the good contact in the world but the prime minister is still very much a person who plays her cards very close to her chest,” says one.

“There are much better mechanisms for listening, for paying attention to the backbenches and all the rest of it. But at the end of the day the prime minister is enormously stubborn.”

Another says colleagues have put forward “quality ideas have been politely listened to – and then nothing happens”.

They add: “She is still very much a person who is impossible to read in meetings. There are times when having a poker face is very good. But in terms of dealing with backbenchers who need a bit of schmoozing, that’s where Gavin and to a certain extent the chief whip do a really good job of that.

“She’s still fundamentally the same person who takes an age to make a decision and who’s never going to sit back, kick off her shoes, and say, ‘Tell me what’s really going on. Give me a bit of gossip’, which is what David Cameron would have done.”

Other key appointments post the election include the appointment of Robbie Gibb, whose brother Nick is the schools minister, as director of communications. Soon after his arrival, May gave a rare, candid interview with Emma Barnett from BBC Radio 5 Live, in which she revealed that she shed a tear on the night of the election.

“Robbie Gibb is very good and clearly knows what he’s doing. He’s a nice person, but will shout when it’s required. He’s just very good at his job,” says a former minister. But others fear that No 10 has moved towards “chasing headlines” since his appointment.

May’s approach to the job is different from her predecessor’s fondness for Blair-like sofa government.

“There’s a much more business-like approach than under DC,” says one official. “You need to have incredible stamina to do the job. And no matter how rough the circumstance, she just keeps going and that rubs off on the rest of us.”

The structure of the week in No 10 “hasn’t changed markedly” since the election, despite the departures of Timothy and Hill, an insider says. Surprisingly, perhaps, given the blood-curdling stories which emanated during the pair’s reign, the atmosphere is the same as it was before they left.

PMQs prep takes up a progressively large chunk of May’s time in the early part of the week, starting on Monday and “getting more intense” up until Tuesday evening.

Alex Dawson from the Downing Street political unit, parliamentary private secretaries Seema Kennedy and (until his recent promotion to trade minister) George Hollingbery, Paul Harrison and Barwell are tasked with the job of getting her ready to do battle with Jeremy Corbyn.

“Weeks are very front-loaded but start to calm down a little bit after PMQs is out of the way,” says a source. “The building starts to exhale a little bit as the weekend approaches.”

The PM’s drive to limit the number of special advisers in Downing Street is proving to have its own costs. There are concerns that the team is being overworked as the government undertakes the not inconsiderable task of Brexit, viewed as the most significant foreign policy decision since the Second World War.

Lidington recognises that the No 10 team is up against it, but insists that that is by no means an anomaly. “Like every No 10 outfit I’ve ever come across in my time in politics, they are always overworked. But that’s no different from under David Cameron or Gordon Brown or Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher,” he says.

“There’s always that intense pressure, because all the time people are coming into No 10 from all parts of Whitehall, from outside organisations, from foreign governments saying, ‘we want a bit of your time and attention’.

“Having trusted people as your gatekeepers, as your private office and key political advisers is important. I think she’s got a good team there now.”

But another senior Conservative with intimate knowledge of how No 10 operates demurs, saying: “It’s hard to say things have dramatically improved, but they are certainly different.

“The complaints I hear are from people saying they don’t get face time with the people who matter. Special advisers say they don’t get to see Robbie Gibb, for example,” they continue.

“There’s no fear and control like there was under Nick and Fi, which is obviously a good thing. But the people in there are operating in silos more than ever and that’s why people are still able to go out and say their own thing without clearing it with No 10 first.

“Businesses say it’s like Groundhog Day. They come in for meetings, tell No 10 about their concerns and then go away. They then come back six months later, nothing’s been done and they have the same conversation all over again. It’s woeful. That is not a government that is planning for the long term.”

“No matter how rough the circumstance, she just keeps going and that rubs off on the rest of us”

Despite that grim assessment, forward planning does go on all the time, with head of strategic communications Ben Mascall a key figure. No 10 works on a quarterly planning cycle, with Whitehall departments expected to let Downing Street know what they’ve got coming up.

Once a month, Lidington, as May’s effective deputy, writes a letter to the PM outlining progress made on the domestic agenda. The Cabinet Office also carries out “deep dives” across Whitehall to assess any blockages holding back the implementation of policy.

On top of that, each department sends a representative to No 10 once a week to lay out what they are doing. From this, the all-important grid is drawn up setting out the news agenda for the next seven days.

May is determined that her government is “not defined by Brexit alone”, a Cabinet minister says. But they concede that parliamentary time is dominated by the issue due to the time constraints of Article 50 and the need to pass key legislation.

A re-wiring of the No 10 machine was demanded after the general election. Without her long-standing aides and close political ally Damian Green beside her, May lacks the insulation and support she once had. In their place is an administration continually under the cosh, comprised of talented individuals trying to keep on top of things.

As a leading Tory figure says: “While in normal times it’s very praise worthy to say we’re going to have a small operation and not have endless numbers of spads and whatever else, in complicated times, when there’s a lot to be done and complicated parliamentary management relations with the DUP, all of those things thrown into the mix, you probably need more capacity.”

The officials: some of the key civil servants in May’s team

Peter Hill
Hill became May’s principal private secretary in May 2017. Before this he was director of strategy at the Foreign Office, a post he held for four years, and had also served under May in the Home Office, working in the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. Hill also worked on the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war between 2009 and 2010 while for three years from 2006 he formed part of Peter Mandelson’s staff during the time when the former cabinet minister was the European Union’s commissioner for trade.

Will Macfarlane
Macfarlane joined No 10 in October 2015 as a private secretary, becoming deputy PPS in December 2016. Before moving to No 10, he worked mostly in the Treasury, most recently as deputy director of budget and tax strategy. From 2012 to 2014 he worked in the Scotland Analysis Unit, which was tasked with producing analysis in the lead-up to the Scottish referendum of how both Scotland and the rest of the UK benefit from being part of one country.

Johnny Hall
Hall is private secretary to the prime minister with responsibility for foreign affairs.

Lorna Gratton
Before becoming private secretary to the prime minister in 2016, Gratton spent three years working for Boston Consulting Group as a project leader. Prior to this, she spent most of her career in the Treasury including a stint as private secretary to the chancellor between 2010 and 2012. Before joining the civil service she trained as a teacher through the Teach First scheme.

Catherine Page
Page, now the PM’s private secretary with responsibility for European issues, joined the civil service as a European fast streamer, working in the business department where she worked on negotiations for the Horizon 2020 framework of research funding. She was seconded to the European Commission working on economic policy and growth strategy before working as private secretary to David Willetts as universities minister.

Victoria Busby
Busby has worked at No 10 as deputy director, events and visits, since 2012, and previously worked at the culture department.

James Slack
The former political editor of the Daily Mail joined No 10 in January 2017 as the PM’s official spokesperson. He delivers the daily briefing to journalists in the Lobby.

Alex Marklew
Marklew joined the No 10 team in December 2017 as speechwriter to the PM. His past roles include working as a speechwriter for secretaries of state in the communities, business and culture departments as well as the vice chancellor of the Open University.

Harry Carter
The prime minister’s legal adviser was previously the longest serving legal adviser in the Home Office where he saw more than 100 bills through parliament and advised 10 home secretaries over 25 years.

Two officials have recently left No 10. Natalie Black, formerly the deputy head of policy in No 10, left to become a trade commissioner in the Department for International Trade at the end of June. Alastair Whitehead, private secretary to the PM responsible for home affairs, joined the National Crime Agency as director of strategy earlier in the same month. No 10 has not yet announced who will be taking over these posts.

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Sebastian Whale and Kevin Schofield
About the author

Sebastian Whale is political editor of The House Magazine and Kevin Schofield is editor of Politics Home. A version of this feature first appeared in The House Magazine

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